A tribute to cricketer Salim Durani by friend Partha Chatterjee
Salim Durani, who died on April 2, 2023, at the age of 88, was one of
the most entertaining cricketers in independent India. He batted and
bowled left-handed with complete ease and fluctuating interest —
inexplicably so. His batting average of 25.04 in 29 Tests and 75
wickets at 35.42 runs per wicket would be considered moderate at
best, but those who saw him playing in the ’right mood’, as did this
writer, first, in the 1962 Calcutta Test versus Ted Dexter’s
Englishmen, would vouch for his prodigious gifts with the bat and
ball. In the first Innings he scored a scintillating 43, which included a
lazy flick over mid-wicket for six off his bête noir, Dexter, a deceptive
fast-medium bowler besides being a marvellous attacking batter.
E.A.S. Prasanna, the great off-spinner, recalled in his autobiography,
One More Over, “Those were the best 43 runs in the match.’’
It was Durani’s match with the ball. With his sharply spun, lifting leg-
breaks (to the right-hander) that came quickly off the pitch and his
surprise arm-ball that came in, he took five for 47 in the first innings
and three for 66 in the second. India won that Test, as they did the
next at Madras — it wasn’t Chennai then — thanks to Durani taking
10 wickets in the match, including six for 105. Overnight, he became
a national cricketing hero!
His stylish 71 runs along with his friend, Chandu Borde who made 68
in a crucial partnership in the first Innings of the first Test at Bombay
(now Mumbai) got noticed. What was not noticed was his sudden
loss of interest, if the bowling was not challenging enough! It was
said, within four years of his Test career, that he would throw away
his wicket if he was bored — a trait of the aristocratic amateur!
This trait was noticed in the 1964-65 Test series against Bobby
Simpson’s Australians. In the second Test at Bombay, which India
won in a thrilling finish, in the second Innings, Durani, going great
guns, with Vijay Merchant exhorting, “Steady, Salim, steady!’’,
suddenly lost concentration, got out at 30 to the leg-spinner and
captain, Simpson, who had him caught by Bob Cowper off his
bowling. It was left to Borde, who made a gritty 30 n. o. to help India
just scrape through to a win. Merchant, Chief National Selector and
an excellent Test batter in the 1930s and ’40s, noticed this
moodiness in Durani.
In the third and final Test at Calcutta, an inspired Durani took six for
73 off 28 overs, and bowled the Aussies out for 177 runs, who were
earlier 117 for no loss! Merchant said, “When in the mood, Durani is
the best bowler of his type in the world.” Yet, in 1966, after the first
Test at Bombay against the West Indies led by the great all-rounder,
Garry Sobers, Durani’s sparkling 55 in the first innings, which
included a straight six over the still very fast Charlie Griffith’s head,
came in for criticism! When Sobers bowled him out with a swinging
full toss, Durani’s response was a cavalier one-handed shot that was
seen as an irresponsible act. Mansur Ali Khan, mercurial captain and
an excellent attacking batter, it was said then, at Merchant’s behest,
dropped Durani from the Test team.
It was not until Ajit Wadekar came in to captain India in 1970-71
against the West Indies that an ageing Durani made a comeback. In
the only Test that India won and with it the series, Durani, put on to
bowl, got out two brilliant and explosive batters capable of winning
the match on their own: Sobers was bowled with a hugely spun ball
that pitched outside the leg stump to clip the bail of the off stump,
and then the six-foot-five-inch Clive Lloyd, thrown off-balance to a
suddenly dipping ball that pitched near his toes, forcing him to spoon
an easy catch to skipper Wadekar at short mid-wicket!
One suspects that the extremely tiring, both mentally and physically,
tour of the West Indies in 1961-62 somehow affected his subsequent
career as a Test cricketer. After the second Test, Nari Contractor, the
captain, playing in a first-class match, unsighted by an extremely fast
delivery from Charlie Griffith, ducked into it and caught a nasty blow
behind his ear, nearly dying — a 16-hour surgery saved him but
ended his career. This incident certainly affected the morale of the
team. Twenty-one-year-old Mansur Ali Khan, aka Nawab of Pataudi,
then vice-captain, was promoted to lead the eleven.
The Indian Test selectors out of sheer pique dropped their star leg-
spinner, Subhash Gupte, for the West Indies tour of 1961-62, as they
did leg-spinner V.V. Kumar, a potential star! Had either been in the
team, the burden on Durani as the lead bowler would have lessened
considerably and he would have got many more wickets than the 17
he managed with a four for 82 in the Port-of-Spain Test as his best.
Poor catching and ground fielding also prevented him from getting
more wickets. The bowling load was carried by Durani and the
stalwart all-rounder, Polly Umrigar, playing his last series at age 38,
who in addition to restricting the aggressive, pulverising West Indies
batting with his persistent off-cutters, scored 172 n. o., one of the
two centuries by the Indians. The other was Durani’s terrific 104,
remembered 40 years later with awe by his two senior colleagues on
the tour, Borde and Bapu Nadkarni, in a TV interview in Marathi.
India were drubbed 5-0 in that Test series and saw a winning
‘racehorse’ like Durani employed as a cart-horse.
Vinoo Mankad, India’s first great all-rounder, was Durani’s mentor.
From the day he saw him play as a boy, he was clearly impressed.
Asked by a Princely cricket patron from Rajasthan, “Who is that
boy?’’, Mankad responded, “My son.’’ Mankad was a professional
cricketer, who earned his living playing Test cricket, first class cricket,
and in the Lancashire League in England during the summer months.
Durani did the same, later. He told this writer, at one of several
lunch meetings at the Press Club of India, Delhi, in the late 1990s,
“Main Lancashire League mein chhe saal khela (I played in the
Lancashire League for six years), tab Garry aur main acche dost ban
gaye thhe. Ham aksar shaam ko ek doosre ke ahaan jaate the, guppe
maarte thhe, khana banate thhe (Garry and I became good friends
then, spent time together in the evenings, chatting, cooking).’’ It was
in a one-day match in the same league that he got 133 runs off Roy
Gilchrist of the West Indies, the fastest and most fearsome bowler in
the world. The one trait he shared with Sobers was a fondness for
alcohol. Durani was also a chain smoker.
There was a constant struggle for money. His earnings as a cricketer
in India in those distant non-IPL days were peanuts; even that he did
not learn how to spend, leave alone save, sensibly. Playing in
Calcutta in the 1972-73 season vs England, he was heard muttering,
smoking his third cigarette, all padded up to bat, “Chalo teen hazaar
rupaye toh aa gaye (Well, three thousand rupees will be coming
in!).” His 53 runs in the second innings helped India to 192. England
lost by 28 runs. Durani took a dipping skier to dismiss wicket keeper-
batter Alan Knott who could have got the runs off his own bat.
In the next Test at Madras which India, led by Wadekar, won by a
whisker, he made 38 and 38 with the bat in the two innings and
while bowling in England’s second Innings, tricked the very tall,
technically and temperamentally solid batter capable of turning a
game, Tony Greig, then on five, into spooning a catch to the ever
alert Eknath Solkar at forward short leg by subtly altering the
trajectory and angle of the ball. In the final drawn Test at Bombay, he
scored 73, helping G.R. Vishwanath, who made a century on debut in
1969 versus Australia, to break the voodoo and score his second.
That was also Durani’s last Test match.
The obits said he was a carefree, bindaas man who took each day at
a time. The observation may be true but he was also aware of having
been short-changed by the Indian cricketing administration. He
expressed deeply felt admiration for B.B. Nimbalkar, the Mahar
cricketer playing for Maharashtra, who was left high and dry at 443
n. o. in a Ranji Trophy match in 1948, by the opposing team,
Kathiawar’s captain, the Thakore Saheb of Rajkot, conceding the
match because he didn’t want an Untouchable to break the great
Australian, Don Bradman’s record of 452 runs in a first class match.
Durani identified with Nimbalkar, who averaged 47.93 in 80 first
class matches but never played for India. He once compared him to
the great West Indian batter, Everton Weekes, in a conversation in
which he also said, “Main Bhausahab ke kapde dhota thha (I used to
wash Bhausahab (Nimbalkar)’s clothes).”